HONOLULU — In East Asia today, a line is gradually being drawn in the water, starting in the sea between Japan and the Korean Peninsula, and running south through the East China Sea and the Taiwan Strait into the South China Sea.
East of this line are the United States, which has started streamlining its military forces in Asia; Japan, which is shedding the pacifist cocoon in which it wrapped itself after World War II; and Taiwan, with which the U.S. has been quietly expanding military connections.
West of the line are China, swiftly emerging as a military, economic, and political power, and its ally, poverty-stricken but militarily dangerous North Korea. Both want the U.S. to withdraw its forces and influence from Asia.
Where South Korea and the Philippines fit into this formation is open to question. South Korea, driven by anti-Americanism, has been leaning toward China despite disputes with Beijing over ancient history.
The Philippines has lost favor with the U.S. after withdrawing its soldiers from Iraq in the face of terrorist blackmail.
Still another question is the role of Russia. While the Russians have been seeking to revive their influence in Asia, diminished after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, they have been preoccupied with problems in European Russia while their Pacific fleet lies rusting at anchor.
No strategic thinker in Washington or Beijing has deliberately drawn this line in the water. Rather it has evolved as a new balance of power in Asia has taken shape. Even so, it is across this line that both sides must manage a strategic competition if it is not to turn into confrontation or open conflict.
Japan’s emergence as a sturdy ally appears to have had a subtle effect on U.S. strategic thinking. Japan will become the site of forward headquarters for all four U.S. military services when the army’s I Corps moves from Seattle to Camp Zama, southwest of Tokyo, in the autumn. The navy, marines, and air force already have headquarters in Japan.
The U.S. plans to add a seventh aircraft carrier to its Pacific fleet as it turns more to sea and air power to maintain a presence in Asia. A larger, nuclear-powered carrier will most likely replace Kitty Hawk, based in Yokosuka, Japan, when that ship retires in 2008.
As the U.S. redeploys forces worldwide, Japan will experience only a slight drawdown although some bases will be consolidated to reduce discord between Japanese and Americans. The main ground contingent to leave Asia will be 12,500 out of 37,000 troops leaving South Korea.
Evidence of the fundamental change in Japan is seen in a new, favorable attitude toward collective defense and moves to revise or reinterpret Article 9, the famed “no-war” clause of the Constitution. The deployment of Japanese troops to Iraq has set a precedent and Japan has shown definite interest in joining the U.S. in missile defense.
The catalyst that has caused Japan to shed its postwar cocoon has been North Korea, which has fired missiles over Japan, set about acquiring nuclear arms, and abducted Japanese citizens from their own shores. In addition, Japanese appear to be increasingly wary of Chinese hostility.
In Taiwan, American observers have been sent to observe exercises, to discuss command and control, and to urge Taiwanese forces to work better together. Taiwanese officers occasionally come quietly to Honolulu to meet with the U.S. Pacific Command here.
In the center of this line is the Japanese island of Okinawa, site of U.S. bases that will become more important as this competition unfolds. Lt. Gen. Wallace Gregson, who commands U.S. Marines in the Pacific, says the reason is the “tyranny of distance.”
“Naha (Okinawa’s capital) is closer to Manila and Shanghai than to Tokyo, and closer to Hanoi than to Hokkaido,” he says. “No place else is so close to so many other important places, no other single location would permit U.S. forces to carry out their crucial role.”
The increasing importance of Okinawa lends urgency to efforts to mitigate frictions generated by incidents like the recent crash of a U.S. helicopter there. No one was killed but many Okinawans were angered.
U.S. officials have begun looking for new ways to ease antibase pressures. One possibility: Turn the bases over to Japan and relegate U.S. forces to being tenants. “Japanese and American troops often operate together, deploy together, and live together,” says one officer. “We do it on exercises now, and it works. Why not do it when we’re in garrison?”